So you want to freelance
Freelancing went mainstream during the global economic downturn; now, despite signs of economic recovery, the trend shows no signs of abating. In the United Kingdom, for instance, one in 20 people today is classified as a freelancer. Across the pond in the United States, an estimated 16 million people are independent workers. Recruiting firm MBO Partners predicts that number will rise more than fourfold by 2020.
For project practitioners looking to make the leap, freelancing offers a lot of potential perks: the chance to diversify your skill set, create a flexible schedule and work on a variety of projects. Unfortunately, no one hands you a comprehensive training platform to get started. So we asked project managers who have successfully navigated the freelance economy to share their best insights.
Don't attempt to freelance without prior staff experience.
“Your success as a freelancer circles around a solid reputation, solid work and extensive networking. It is important to be esteemed by your peers,” says Kierstin Gray, PMP, freelance program director at advertising company Area 23, New York, New York, USA. Without a proven track record of project execution, professional prestige is impossible. Once you have a roster of contacts, doors will start to open.
Consider your credentials.
“Certifications are a help to freelancers; they act as a minimum quality stamp to someone like me, who reviews freelance CVs all the time,” says Anders Persson, PMI-ACP, PMP, freelance project manager on assignment to the Danish military, Copenhagen, Denmark. Professional credentials, such as the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential, also signal a commitment to the profession.
Pad your savings account.
“A good rule of thumb: You should always have three months' wages in the bank or a solid contract for six months of work ahead of you,” Mr. Persson says. “If you have either, you are probably better off than most people in a regular job.”
A nest egg is especially vital for freelancers transitioning out of steady payroll. Bear in mind that many accounting departments do not pay contractor invoices until 30 to 90 days after receipt; indeed, you may even find yourself taking on the role of collections officer to run down overdue payments.
Brace yourself for an unconventional schedule.
Contract work rarely conforms to a standard workweek. One month you may be working long hours to balance multiple jobs; the next month, nothing. “I learned to enjoy the downtime when it happened. But freelance project management is best suited to a person with an ability to endure a little bit of anxiety about the ups and downs,” says Kathryn Burke-Howe, PMP, a freelance project and program manager in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
Smita Tambe, PMP, an IT project manager in Pune, India, switched to freelance for the flexible schedule. “You have to think as an entrepreneur,” she says, setting your own hours and knowing the limitations of your workload and schedule. Choosing her own projects allows Ms. Tambe to meet her goal of working about 10 days a month.
Calculate your going rate—and the rate you need to keep going.
Setting your rate may feel like taking a shot in the dark—unless you do a bit of sleuthing. First, ask your industry contacts to keep you abreast of market rates. Also check out the PMI® Project Management Salary Survey for location-specific salaries. Remember, Mr. Persson cautions, contract work typically pays higher than staff positions, because it doesn't come with benefits such as healthcare coverage and paid vacation. You may sell yourself short by simply translating your prior staff salary into an hourly rate. “Most people don't like to talk money, but in freelance that works against you. Freelancers need to know what their walkaway point is, their target and the market point,” says Ms. Gray. “Early on, I was lowballing myself on price. I quickly learned how to play a hard line.”
Spruce up your online calling card.
LinkedIn is a powerful and inexpensive way to build your contacts and ultimately land more jobs. “Take the time to be clear and succinct. I have found that clearly stating my experience will speak for itself,” Ms. Gray says. “When recruiters find my profile on LinkedIn and invite me to interview, my reputation and clear profile make it easier for me to land the job.” But LinkedIn isn't only a way to snag new business; it's also a way to stay in touch with past clients who might have new assignments to make, says Mr. Persson. “Just within the last 48 hours, recruiters from two different agencies have asked me to connect to their network, and one asked for additional information and an updated résumé.”
Get ready to meet and greet.
It's hard to overstate the power of face-to-face connections. Ms. Burke-Howe makes it a priority to attend PMI chapter meetings and professional development events several times a year. The opportunities to have one-on-one interactions have helped her establish a rapport with a variety of contacts, she says.
But don't limit your networking to project management events. Rachel Phillips, PMI-ACP, PMP, says one of her strongest connections happened by chance: While working as the project lead on a website development project in Seattle, Washington, USA, she accepted an invitation to a party hosted by a well-known sommelier who did a lot of marketing events. There she struck up a great conversation with the sommelier. “He wound up thinking of me as the marketing guru, and I got so many jobs from one random invitation,” she says. She's worked as a freelance project manager in marketing for the past four years and is now employed full time.
Use job listings as freelance leads.
Once you find a job posting online, do a quick search of your contacts to see if you know anyone who's worked at the hiring organization. Ask for your contact's approval to mention him or her in your email to the person in charge of hiring. “It's as simple as finding a job posting and emailing an employer directly,” Ms. Phillips says. “I'll say, ‘I hear from Jane Smith that this company is having some tremendous growth, and I would love to hear about what you have going on right now.’” Set a reminder to follow up if you haven't heard anything in a week.
Flex your memory for personal particulars.
Ms. Burke-Howe has developed a knack for remembering tiny details about past and potential clients. “People have been impressed. It's a way to stand out in a sea of contacts,” she says. If your memory isn't as sponge-like, consider annotating your address book. “It's the little things you wouldn't think would matter,” says Ms. Phillips, who once bonded with a client over a particular preference for certain types of pens, and made a note of it. “Years later I was doing some contract work for her real estate company, and mentioned this thing about the pen. It was because of her that I was brought back to wrap up the end-of-the-year projects.”
Keep looking until an offer's finalized.
“I've had promising conversations with potential clients over the phone and, while the opportunity was percolating, told others that I wouldn't be available. But sometimes the negotiation failed to come to an agreement or the work didn't come through on the client's end,” says Ms. Burke-Howe. “Nothing is guaranteed until you have a contract.”
Stay ahead of the curve with continuing education.
Employers will expect freelancers to show up with their own skills toolkit. Ms. Gray recommends the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)® credential for any project manager in a high-tech field. “Agile is only going to get bigger,” says Ms. Phillips. “It's important to remember that professional certifications are a way to turn heads.”
Get your books in order.
Your tax situation is likely to change when you freelance, so it's a good idea to consult an accountant or other financial professional to work out a tax plan that doesn't leave you or the government short. “I know a lot of really smart, responsible, law-abiding people who have gotten themselves in tax trouble, because it's complicated,” says Ms. Burke-Howe. Set up a system to keep careful track of invoices and payments received, work expenses and financial paperwork. “For every project, get a formal purchase order or contract from the client, signed by an authorized stakeholder as proof,” says Ms. Tambe.
Volunteer during lulls.
Volunteering allows you to sharpen your skill set while meeting people in the context of a shared cause. When Ms. Phillips volunteered with Taproot, a start-up that corrals pro bono services onto one platform, she didn't know Drupal. But she worked as a project manager on a website development project for a not-for-profit that used the open-source platform, and then added the skill to her résumé. “It helped me because larger organizations that had been trying to switch to Drupal hired me,” she says. Project practitioners can also volunteer at PMI chapters to gain skills and professional development units.
Document the work you've done.
“I have a ramp-up and a ramp-down process,” Ms. Gray says. Because employers won't be able to easily ask questions once a project has ended, she says it's up to the freelance project manager to ease their anxieties about moving forward. She does this by creating a transition document that catalogs her actions, time and insights with the company. “When I leave, there is some artifact of me having been there. Giving clients extra consideration helps maintain relationships. During the holiday season, I stay connected to clients by dropping a note saying it was great working with them and to keep me in mind for future work.”
Schedule a self-check.
Four times a year, “make sure you step back, look up and assess what your career goals are,” Ms. Phillips says. Earmark money that you need for both living expenses and professional development events that can boost your success. Upon gaining some freelance experience, create a data document that lays out how you will best meet your aspirations—both financial and intellectual. “Now that I'm a year in and established, I've been able to make mindful decisions about which project opportunities I will and won't accept,” Ms. Burke-Howe says. “Because for certain jobs being offered, the math won't make sense for what I'm trying to accomplish.” PM
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